Monday, 10 November 2008

[71] Vimanarama, by Grant Morrison and Philip Bond [Great Comics]

Every time I come to write a comics piece on this blog, I feel like I should apologise. It won't take an observant person to see that pretty much all of my comics articles so far have been based around books written by Grant Morrison. Arkham Asylum, We3, Kill Your Boyfriend and, to a lesser extent, Final Crisis have all stirred me to write something. And that doesn't take into account his stuff I haven't written about, such as JLA or Batman RIP. In the last few months, Morrison has gone from an untested mystery, to one of my favourite writers in the medium. And here's one more to add to the list, Vimanarama.

Vimanarama was released in 2005, as a 3 part mini-series. It saw Morrison reunited with artist Philip Bond, who had previously worked on Kill Your Boyfriend and The Invisibles. The story centres around Ali, a teenage Muslim boy from Bradford. His life is sandwiched between dossing, helping out with his father's corner shop business, and worrying about love. However, one day his life takes on a different tone, as he is introduced to his arranged wife-to-be, the peppy, beautiful Sofia. What's more, while searching underneath the shop's damaged stock room, they find an ancient subterranean city, and accidentally unleash an evil, mythical force. Not to worry, though, as the Ultrahadeen, a bunch of superheroic Indian demigods, are not far behind to save the day.

Clashing is the order of the day. Be it cultural, with the India-meets-super-heroes concept, or simply narrative, in the mundane, human world's confrontation with myth and fable. As it is, Morrison and Bond handle this aspect ('real world vs fantasy') much better than more vocally ambitious comics like Marvel 1985. This is achieved by Morrison's script, which skilfully weaves the story of Ali, his family and Sofia with the more epic, action-packed battle narrative. The tone of the book is set early on, with a focus on comedy that is based around family relationships. Ali's family, from his ultra-devout brother Omar, to his forever-hounded father (who constantly clutches his chest in anticipation of a son-induced heart attack), roots the story in the humanistic, before whirling off into fantasy.

While not as deep, mind-bending or poetic as other Morrison novels, Vimanarama is a huge success on the level of representation. Judeo-Christian aspects of religion have been done to death in the comics world, so to take such detailed and direct inspiration from Islamic, Hindu and ancient Indian mythology makes this wonderfully unique. The representation of contemporary British society, a level-headed, rounded approach to British Muslims, is a bold step for Morrison, especially in the light of 9/11 and current tensions in the media. Here, Ali and his family are narrated and represented with grounded, intelligent skill, without a hint of exoticism or Orientalism. The exoticism of Vimanarama is displayed through the depiction of the Ultrahadeen. Ancient Indian mythology is one of the most colourful and interesting traditions the world has to offer, and it is a joy to see it on show here in a imaginative, larger-than-life, Jack Kirby-ish style.

I was a little underwhelmed by Philip Bond's work on Kill Your Boyfriend. However, his work on Vimanarama is ambitious, charming and impressive. He manages to portray the humanist levels of the story very well, but also comes into his own in the exaggerated fantastic style used for the Prince Ben Rama, Ull-Shattan and the other heroes. He copes well with the narrative's shift between low-key romantic comedy and epic sci-fi disaster movie. Importantly, the art communicates the light, humorous tones of the comic well, so the moments of violence and horror do not jar or break the mood.

Morrison has said in interviews that he wanted to challenge Bond with this comic, and it shows. There are plenty of splash pages, of the underground city, of London ravaged by the devils, where Bond's skill is really shown off. The bright colouring used by Brian Miller also goes a long way to defining the unique tone of this work, and the comic features typically brilliant lettering from Todd Klein, who always uses speech bubbles and text to dizzying effect in communicating character.

Vimanarama takes its inspiration from an untapped source, and repackages it with a currently out of fashion style of comics storytelling. It is a fun book to read, and it retains an unironic sense of wonder that makes it a real page-turner. Over the course of 100 pages, it manages to create a new tradition for the superhero genre, without losing sight of its main assets: its characters. Like with We3, Grant Morrison has helped spawn a ground-breaking, unconventional story from an initial, back-of-a-cigarette-pack idea.

Thanks to Dave's Long Box for some of the scans used.
Check out Vimanarama on Wikipedia.
Check out Vimanarama on Amazon.

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